Nordkiez after the battle of Dorfplatz

Well…’battle’ is kind of a strong word, but there’s no denying that the violence that broke out this summer in Rigaer Street in Berlin Friedrichshain highlights just how broken the current situation is here. Some readers might remember my reporting on the Gefahrengebiet, or ‘Danger Zone’ situation in my Berlin neighbourhood earlier this year. The February demonstration which I urged for in that article was a great success on the day, accomplished peacefully despite a heavy police escort and met with solidarity from across the neighbourhood. It was not so successful, however, in making an impact on the decision makers at the top. Although the residents of the area had made their discontent plain (and we are talking about the residents, these were not 4000 card-carrying anarchists), Interior Minister Henkel (the CDU ‘Law and Order’ champion who has made this issue his personal Vietnam) held to his hard line, and heavy handed police patrols and controls remained the order of the day.

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Photos courtesy of Saturnex

In May, my girlfriend and I were walking down the street and we popped into the bar of our nearest house project for shots (we were celebrating her birthday), when a van pulls up on the corner and we’re surrounded by eight burly officers, armed and armoured and demanding our papers. We were frisked, groped and escorted to our apartment where we could produce our passports (important to note that the officers separated us, and came in without being invited). In hindsight, I’m ashamed that I didn’t put up more of a fight, since intimidation was used to push the boundaries and enter our home unlawfully.

Some might dismiss this as a minor inconvenience, an unwelcome interruption of a birthday celebration and a bit of a bummer, but not much to complain about when, say, racist killings by police are going on in the US. Germany is a very bureaucratic country, and residents are required to register their place of residency with the local council and keep these records up to date. Presumably law enforcement could access this information through the proper bureaucratic channels. But aside from feeling less free to walk around the street, there could be more sinister consequences to these controls. At least one police document containing the details of  a mass control of a house-project was leaked to a Neo-Nazi group.

That’s not the only indicator of something rotten in the police dept. One of the less sympathetic aspects of the autonomous scene’s activities (and the one that gets them the most negative PR with regards to the general public), is their burning of luxury cars in retaliation for raids on the house-projects. While the left-autonomous scene is far from a monolithic entity, they have stood by these attacks through various online mouthpieces. Nonetheless at least one captured arsonist-activist is alleged to be an undercover police provocateur, associated with the right-wing anti immigrant group PEGIDA. The police disavows this, of course, while left-leaning media sources insist, whatever the truth, it’s clear that we’re in the middle of a dirty fight.

This year has seen a redoubled effort from the autonomous scene in the house projects to build solidarity with the other residents of the area. Regular meetings and round tables are held to discuss not only the Gefahrengebiet, but the issue of rising rents, property development, and gentrification. Momentum appears to be steadily building to a more united front as the consequences are more visible on the street level. The CG-Gruppe, property developers with a plan to renovate the neighbourhood with luxury apartments, increasingly make their presence felt, and the demolishing of several old buldings (some area of which had been used as a community art space) on a prominent street, has served as a wake up call to those that are seeing the landscape change. Posters and graffiti protesting these changes abound, and neighbours bleakly trade jokes about when they’ll be forced to move to the city outskirts.

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Photo by SATURNEX

 

Gentrification and authoritarianism go hand in hand. Now we come to the aforementioned ‘battle’. Police officials coordinated their actions with the owner of the Rigaer 94, a faceless British investment firm based in Caribbean tax havens, and raided the R94 once more on July 22nd, totally destroying the public space. Only July 9th, a street protest in ‘dorfplatz’ (the crossroads of Rigaerstr. and Leibigstr., where two prominent house-projects are based) collapsed into violence when the protesters were kettled by police. At this time, I was on holiday far away from the action, but friends and neighbours who had expected a peaceful protest along the lines of what happened in February were bruised and frightened – the lack of meaningful dialogue and action for a peaceful resolution between the two sides over the last few months had incubated and intensified a festering resentment and siege mentality . Since I was too busy being many miles away on the beach to be a street warrior, I’d like to direct you to this local blogger for a thoughtful perspective on the July 9 protest and consequences.

From where I can see, the pendulum appears to have swung to the side of the streets. The issue of the June 22 raid was taken to court, which decided that the raid and eviction on R94 was unlawful, and use of the premises has returned to the residents. The lawyer for the British homeowner company claimed that he did not turn up to court because he was intimidated by a burning car on his street, this still didn’t seem to garner him much sympathy for his case. As much as we immigrants love to complain about German bureaucracy, we can be grateful that the police are not immune to censure for failing to follow correct procedure in their actions. Politically, the situation has turned against Henkel and his aggressive stance, with the Pirate and Green parties standing with the Rigaerstr. residents, and representatives of more mainstream parties at least making noises about opening a dialogue and seeking a peaceful solution.

A peaceful solution is going to depend on leadership and persuasive action from those on both sides who would like to leave the arsons and leaks to Nazi groups far in the distance. The message of February 6 was ignored, with authorities trusting in their own power or people’s complacency. July 9 can’t afford to be ignored or dismissed the same way. It’s election season in Berlin, and many official political posters up on the street (especially in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg area) are directly referencing these issues, particularly those of the Pirate Party (a young, progressive party with a focus on social issues and technology). Interior Minister Henkel has staked his reputation on treating the left wing scene with contempt and crushing street resistance with force, but in the light of his failure in court and political opposition, his gamble has the potential to fail spectacularly. While city elections are one side of the fight, grassroots activism continues. Community meetings are held every week where residents of regular rented housing and those of the house projects meet and discuss the issues effecting their lives. People are being encouraged to come forward and report the details of the abuses that took place in the Gefahrengebiet. For now, the iron first has relaxed its grip but still hovers over the streets. Controls on the street have stopped or declined, but large police vans still patrol much more regularly in the supposed ‘danger-zone’ than in nearby high-crime areas.

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Will this see a new surge of Berlin’s progressive, freedom-loving post-wall spirit in the mainstream? One can only hope so, since many battles between social factions are decided by how the more numerous, generally passive, neutral majority decide to swing. Nordkiez residents must struggle to win the battle of hearts and minds before the next battle of clubs and stones.

To Berliners living outside Nordkiez, I would urge you not to forget your neighbours when you vote or otherwise engage politically. Berlin’s autonomous spaces are a big party of what makes the city stand out from other, more homogenised and sanitised capitals, where such expressions of community and creativity have been driven out and appropriated by capital. Nowadays, these spaces are not made new in the city, the freedom that enabled their genesis does not exist, the ideology of people over profit is scorned, they can only hold the line against the capitalist wrecking machine. Should they fall, their loss will be permanent, and be felt most keenly by the poorer communities in the city.

 

 

 

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~ by theserpentscircle on August 15, 2016.

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